Music and the Aesthetics of Modernity: Essays

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Music and the Aesthetics of Modernity: Essays


Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times


Beyond the enchanted realm Music and the aesthetics of modernity: essays Edited by Karol Berger & Anthony Newcomb Harvard University Department of Music/Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., & London, 2005); xviii, 412pp; £22.95. ISBN 0 9640317 2 8.

THIS BOOK, deriving from a conference at Harvard in November 2001, is a Festschrift in honour of Reinhold Brinkmann, who was 70 in 2004. The editors have assembled a high-profile cast, and any volume including contributions from Carolyn Abbate, Karol Berger, Scott Burnham, Hermann Danuser, Lydia Goehr, the late David Lewin, Anne Shreffler and Leo Treitler, to name just some of the luminaries listed, might expect to come high on any musicologist's reading list. In the event, disparities between the contributions conspire to make the result rather less uniformly absorbing than it might have been. But as a guide to the achievements and problems of present-day music studies, it is well worth investigating.

According to the editors' declaration, their 'project', relating to at least some of the topics to have concerned Reinhold Brinkmann in writings which are fittingly cited by several of the authors, is not simply to encourage a debate about the whole idea of modernity 'within the vocabulary of historians of Western art music', but also to explore the roots of musical modernity, in the 18th century and earlier. Editorial concern to make this debate as comprehensive as possible is shown by the fact that three of the 17 chapters are not by musicologists, connecting quite subtly with the 'master' discourse of the other 14. It would be tempting to say that there are wider divisions among the musicologistcontributors than between musicologists and nonmusicologists, but that would undervalue the degree to which virtually all the contributors sing from the same hermeneutically-tinted hymn sheet, with only David Lewin characteristically flying what might be rather crudely characterised as the formalist flag. 'Some theoretical thoughts about aspects of harmony in Mahler's symphonies' explores what Lewin terms 'ikonic analysis', 'ikon' denoting a referential sonority (like the Tristan chord) which is 'not necessarily dependent on other sonorities for whatever meaning we sense in it'. Lewin argues that 'ikonic hearing complements other modes of hearing, in a dialectical manner', and concludes that there is more potential for thinking of Mahler as implicated in modernist technical strategies than might usually be allowed.

Of course, approaches to Mahler which stress aesthetic qualities, or their interaction with technical procedures, might make an even stronger case for Mahler as modernist, and Lewin here is at the furthest extreme from his co-contributors, Scott Burnham in particular, whose comments, in On the Beautiful in Mozart' are often hard to distinguish from what the editors in their prefatory account of Carolyn Abbate's essay refer to as 'naive, neoKretzschmarian low hermeneutics'. Out of context, a comment like Burnham's on the trio from Cost fan tutte, or the Clarinet Concerto's Adagio - 'the mere sound of its opening seems to transport us to the threshold of an enchanted realm' - is a good deal more Classic FM than Princeton School of Advanced Studies. But Burnham is unrepentant, claiming that 'we routinely try to ground Western art music in other discourse systems, because we still tend to think of this music as a profound, even oracular, utterance from a wordless transcendental realm, as something that needs to be grounded even while we reassure ourselves that it can never be.' Not so Classic FM, after all. Yet it could be the kind of article that ends as reductively as Burnham's 'What Mozart offers to modernity is the sound of the loss of innocence, the ever renewable loss of innocence. That such a sound is beautiful has nothing to do with Mozart and everything to do with us' - that has goaded Carolyn Abbate to launch her no-less reductive assault on hermeneutics, whether 'low' or 'soft' (that is, relatively sophisticated, or 'high').

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